No.14 Winter 2017

Review – Joseph Daher, 'Hezbollah: The political economy of Lebanon’s party of god'

Islamist parties of various stripes have been growing in popularity and influence for some time now. Their growth is primarily a reaction to the authoritarian and neoliberal degeneration of the Arab national regimes of the early post-colonial period, and the failure of the left to offer an effective alternative. The Middle East has thus not been spared the negative short-term effects of the general defeat of “really existing socialism” – better understood as Stalinism. We can add to this general picture regionally specific events, including the US-sponsored training camps of the Afghan Mujahideen in the 1980s,[1] the legacy of the brutal and highly sectarian US-led occupation of Iraq, the intensification of the rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia. As a result of these and other processes, Islamist parties are now dominant in Turkey (AKP) and Iraq (Dawa), share power in Tunisia (Ennahda), Palestine (Hamas), Lebanon (Hezbollah), and form the main opposition parties in a range of other places, notably Egypt (Muslim Brotherhood).

Despite these developments, there has been relatively little serious theorising or research done on these movements. Discussions of Islamist organisations by mainstream academics and journalists often rely on simplistic analyses which blend together an extraordinarily broad range of organisations and ideologies into the dubious category of “political Islam” and, of course, “terrorism”.

The left has not been entirely exempt from this intellectually bankrupt and politically racist trap. Take the analysis of those who defend the Syrian regime, who routinely refer to revolutionaries as “jihadis” and “headchoppers”, and refuse to make distinctions between the democratic sentiments that motivated the original revolution, the remnants of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), moderate Islamist groups, Nusra and ISIS. Any reference to Islam in a party’s political program makes one a reactionary, according to this view.

In this context, it is a breath of fresh air to read Joseph Daher’s excellent book, Hezbollah: The political economy of Lebanon’s party of god. Clearly a product of years of painstaking research, the text synthesises a huge amount of statistics, historical background and interviews with key actors to produce a detailed picture of the most important party in Lebanese politics.

Neoliberal Islamism

The central argument of the book is that Hezbollah has become a party whose politics represent the interests of the Shi’ite fraction of the Lebanese bourgeoisie. To back up this claim Daher documents the extensive and increasing links between the growing layer of Shi’ite capitalists and the party hierarchy.

Long dominated by a Maronite and Sunni capitalist class, the eighties and nineties saw the rise of a Shi’ite capitalist class focused primarily on construction and trade. Rebuilding devastated and highly impoverished areas in west and especially south Beirut – areas that have higher concentrations of Shi’ite communities – was an avenue for profitable investment for a layer of Shi’ite investors. Funded in large part by remittances from successful Shi’ite emigrants but also post-war reparations, this investment tended to focus on housing and tourism opportunities for middle and upper-income Shi’ite families.

These investments have generally been organised in the sectarian and clientelistic pattern that pervades the rest of Lebanese capitalism. What this means is that Hezbollah uses its positions of power to favour Shi’ite companies that support its activities, granting them subsidies, construction approvals and preferential media coverage. In return it expects absolute loyalty, and is prepared to crush those who attempt to forge independent economic and political existences in what they perceive to be their territories.

For instance, one private company has built a series of religiously informed tourism venues across southern Lebanon, a Hezbollah-run Islamic school, the building and radio tower for the Hezbollah radio station, and is now gaining lucrative government contracts for construction projects in Iraq. This latter aspect also highlights the substantial connections between Iranian capital and Lebanese Shi’ites, which mirrors the relationship between Saudi capital with Lebanese Sunni businesses.

The size and scope of these construction projects massively expanded after Israel’s 2006 war on Lebanon, and Hezbollah-linked investors benefitted from substantial government handouts for social reconstruction. This initiated a virtuous cycle of investment, lending, trade and further investment which, although it has not benefited the entire Shi’ite community, has raised tens of thousands into the ranks of the middle and upper classes.

To prove this, Daher presents data which suggests that although there remains a substantial layer of poor and working class Shi’ite (as there is for each of the sects), it is now the hinterlands of the northern city of Tripoli which suffer from the worst poverty. This is a predominantly Sunni area, and in recent times has witnessed a surge in ISIS-style Islamist organisations after decades of being taken for granted by urban Sunni elites.

Bourgeois party

In his seminal 1994 essay, The prophet and the proletariat, British Marxist Chris Harman argued that Islamist political organisations attracted support from all classes, but emphasised especially the role of impoverished middle classes, be they traditional merchants, shopkeepers, clerics or low-ranking civil servants. This article was a crucial intervention into arguments about how to understand Islamism, putting forward an analysis that avoided both Islamophobic hostility and uncritical support. It remains a useful reference point for the left in analysing and dealing with such organisations.

In an important and often overlooked section at the beginning of the article, Harman refers to the various class bases of Islamist movements. In addition to the traditional ruling and middle classes and the poor urban classes, he discusses a layer of actual capitalists who back these parties:

Second, often emerging from among [the old exploiting class], are some of the capitalists who have enjoyed success despite hostility from those groups linked to the state. In Egypt, for instance, the present day Muslim Brotherhood “wormed their way into the economic fabric of Sadat’s Egypt at a time when whole sections of it had been turned over to unregulated capitalism. Uthman Ahmad Uthman, the Egyptian Rockefeller, made no secret of this sympathy for the Brethren”.[2]

Despite this important insight, it is arguable that the role of this bourgeois layer is underexplored in the rest of the piece. This is significant because two decades on, the relative influence of these bourgeois forces on mass Islamist parties across the region has undoubtedly grown. No longer are parties like the Muslim Brotherhood, the AKP and Hezbollah outsiders to the political establishment, except perhaps in Egypt where the repression under Sisi has been immense. It can no longer be said that they are primarily parties of the middle class, and certainly they are not “reformists”.[3] They are now, notwithstanding regional and national differences, integrated parts of the capitalist system both politically and economically. This transition has manifested in a growing pragmatism and authoritarianism on the political front, and an adaptation to neoliberal economics on the economic one. To the extent that they still clash with rival sections of capital, it is limited to conflict over access to decision-making and fund-allocation apparatuses; there are no fundamental disagreements about neoliberal economics and developmental strategies as such.

Daher ably documents Hezbollah’s journey down this path. To begin with Hezbollah strongly opposed the sectarian political structures of Lebanese society, and called for the modernisation and democratisation of the confessional electoral system. This was partly a reflection of the attitudes of the poor and middle-class sections of the Shi’ite community, oppressed and excluded as they were by the Lebanese establishment. As well, the position was informed by its rivalry with the Lebanese Communist Party and the progressive left, who had long enjoyed strong support from the working class and poor among the Shi’ite community. Today, Hezbollah has totally abandoned these perspectives in return for a stake in the corrupt sectarian system of Lebanese politics.

Although it continues to draw its support from all classes of the Shi’ite community, it is Shi’ite elites who increasingly make up the bulk of Hezbollah’s leading cadres. This new generation tends to have higher levels of tertiary education and wealth than earlier generations of leaders.

This tendency reflects the changing nature of Shi’ite communities in Lebanon, which is increasingly represented in the professional middle classes. Daher documents how in the past decade Hezbollah-affiliated candidates have taken over the engineers’ and architects’ association, captured the vice-presidency of the dentists’ association, are represented in the ruling group in the doctors’ association, and narrowly missed out on capturing the pharmacists’ association by less than 0.2 percent of the vote.[4] This process is reflected in the social composition of the parliamentary wing of the party:

Five of the ten elected Hezbollah deputies hold doctoral degrees, and at least four others were involved in prominent Lebanese businesses. The longest serving Hezbollah deputy, Ali Ammar, comes from one of the wealthiest families in Burj el-Barajneh.[5]

State within a state

Despite this fundamentally bourgeois nature of the party, Hezbollah leaders are extremely concerned with maintaining and expanding their mass base in the Shi’ite community. To this end the party has constructed a series of civil society organisations that propagate the organisation’s specific brand of political, economic and religious ideology.

In some ways the party looks similar to the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) of the early twentieth century, though far more geared toward profit-making. It runs a highly integrated series of institutions, including schools, TV, radio and print media, health clinics, tourism and entertainment industries, mosques, scout programs, and more. It offers discount shopping cards to be used at approved (Hezbollah-supporting, Shi’ite-owned) stores, subsidised healthcare for its members, welfare for families of those killed in Hezbollah military operations, and so on.

Embedded in the structure and discourse of all of these institutions is a brand of Shi’ite Islamism first popularised by Ayatollah Khomeini in the Iranian revolution. It emphasises the need for complete obedience to supreme religious bodies, adherence to strict codes of modesty and propriety, and resistance to the US, Israel and its allies.

Daher explains how the party has implemented a long term strategy seeking to deliberately heighten the religiosity of the Shi’ite community of Lebanon, which it sees as a means of cementing its control. This has gone along with extremely regressive attitudes towards women and LGBTI people – in areas controlled by the party the hijab is more or less imposed on women and bans on alcohol and other “sinful” acts are strictly enforced. This party has also adopted a more sectarian stance towards other confessional groups, and now share with the US establishment an almost obsessive focus on the threat of takfiris, or extreme Sunni Islamist groups.

One of the most damning aspects of Hezbollah’s political practice – and one of the most fascinating aspects of Daher’s book – was its intervention into the union movement. In the 1990s it was part of the neoliberal regime of Rafiq al-Hariri, and supported the savage privatisation of Lebanon’s assets. While Hezbollah began its existence supposedly championing the interests of the poor and workers, by this time it was far more oriented to the rights of investors and business people.

When faced with strong union resistance the government intervened directly into the affairs of the General Confederation of Lebanese Workers (CGTL) in order to defeat the left and impose passivity. This was done by taking advantage of the undemocratic constitutional specificities of the federation, which gave equal rights to all unions regardless of size. Hezbollah, along with other parties of government, set up a number of fake sectarian unions in order to stack out the council and preserve their control over key industries. The left was unable to resist this coordinated onslaught, and the union movement has been in something of a crisis ever since.

Revolution and counter-revolution

As is often the case in politics, the cumulative impact of Hezbollah’s gradual accommodation to the sectarian status quo could only become fully clear under the pressure of decisive events. Daher thus concludes his book with an analysis of Hezbollah’s response to the most significant event in the Middle East for decades – the revolutions of 2011.

Like many guerrilla-type organisations in the region, Hezbollah has generally tried to maintain a position of neutrality vis-à-vis the internal politics of the various Arab regimes. This mistaken position rests on the need for such groups to receive outside funding and weaponry from sympathetic state actors, as the guerrilla strategy relies on military prowess rather than political or economic mass struggle. So as recently as 2009 its leader, Hassan Nasrallah, declared that Hezbollah does “not have a conflict or a problem with anyone, the Arab political system in this or that country, whether democratic, dictatorial, royal or dynastic, religious or secular, legal or illegal…regardless of the description we do not interfere in such matters”.[6]

Yet when the protests began in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Libya and Bahrain, the party took a principled position in support of the movements, arguing that: “[t]he uprisings of the Arab population are a real opportunity to regain freedom of decision and to return to the spirit of the Arab position that rejects foreign hegemony”.[7]

Interestingly, Nasrallah began by strongly condemning the conspiracy theories which abounded even in the early days:

Any accusation that claims that America is behind these revolutions, has incited and stirred them, and is leading them represents a false, unjust accusation of these peoples… These are regimes that follow America and harmonize with it that have offered and still offer services for the American plot, and that do not constitute any threat to the American policy – which is “Israel” in the Middle East.[8]

Yet as the revolution spread throughout Syria, Hezbollah became increasingly ambivalent about the revolutions. Daher draws out how their criteria for supporting the protest movements – regime attitude to Israel and readiness to reform – were applied selectively and hypocritically. In reality, the party was totally hostile to the revolution in Syria because Assad was a close ally of the Iranian regime, and an important source of resources and political backing.

As the Syrian government unleashed savage repression on the revolutionaries, Hezbollah happily joined in, participating in sieges, raids, bombings and mass killings of civilian targets across the country. It has also helped to train foreign Shi’ite militias organised by Iran, which have played a crucial role in recapturing territory from the rebels in the absence of Assad’s largely defunct Syrian Arab Army.

Hezbollah has paid a huge price for this intervention, losing over 1,300 soldiers to death or serious injury. Much more significant in the long run is its loss of prestige in the Arab world. Emerging from 2006 as the first force to have defeated Israel in decades, Nasrallah was the most loved Arab leader across the region, among both Sunnis and Shi’ites.[9] Its fighters and supporters received shelter from all Lebanese communities during the war, and were seen as being on the front line of pan-Arab resistance to Israel. This reputation is in tatters as a result of their highly sectarian, counter-revolutionary intervention into Syria, and it is difficult to see how it can be rebuilt.

Tellingly, Hezbollah now opposes any talk of regime change in the Arab world, except in Bahrain where the (consciously non-sectarian) movement consisted largely of Shi’ites due to the demographics of the country, and was directed against a pro-Saudi, largely Sunni ruling class.

Conclusion

Taken together, the argument made by Daher clearly indicates that Hezbollah is a bourgeois party on the counter-revolutionary wing of Arab politics, where it joins many other Islamist organisations that have found a home in the corrupt world of Arab capitalism. The driving force of this evolution has not been religion per se, but the overall hegemonic project of a section of Shi’ite capital, in which religion functions as a unifying and disciplining social and political framework. Being part of an anti-American geopolitical bloc does not mean the group is progressive, as reflected in the organisation’s reactionary economic and social policies. While this analysis of Hezbollah does not rule out collaboration and joint activities in certain fields – for instance in opposition to another Israeli invasion – it suggests a qualitatively different orientation to that of the Lebanese Communist Party and their fellow travellers in the country. It also means we need a fundamentally different approach from that of former left wing MP George Galloway and other Stalinist-influenced Western leftists who see Hezbollah as a core prop of the axis of resistance in the Middle East. The failure of this analysis is reflected in Hezbollah’s increasing disavowal of “oppositional” rhetoric, and its recurring tendency to block with the establishment – including its supposed rivals in the March 14 alliance – whenever challenged.

The book is a must-read for those seeking to understand Middle Eastern politics. It provides much needed detail and historical context for understanding the rise of one of the most important political parties in the region, and begins the process of deepening and updating Chris Harman’s earlier work to provide a Marxist framework for understanding Islamism more generally. For as Daher says in his conclusion, it would be wrong to see the Islamism of Hezbollah and other such parties as a mere rhetorical device. Rather, it is a core aspect of the party’s political program and institutional structures, which are both shaped by and in turn shape the structures of capitalism in the Middle East. It will take both an increase in class struggle and the development of consciously non-sectarian working class political organisations to break down the social and political reality of sectarianism in the region. In the meantime, serious effort needs to be put into analysing the proliferation of mass Islamist organisations and working out how to build an independent left wing pole of organisation, to try to understand and undercut the disastrous polarisation of Middle Eastern politics into “secular” and Islamist brands of neoliberal authoritarianism. Daher’s book is a great intellectual contribution to this broader political challenge.

 

References

Alabbasi, Mamoon 2015, “Fall from grace: Hezbollah in the eyes of Sunni Syrians”, Middle East Eye, 24 February, www.middleeasteye.net/news/fall-grace-hezbollah-eyes-sunni-syrians-2034442637.

Bouharoun, Jad 2017, “Understanding the counter-revolution”, International Socialism, 153, Winter, http://isj.org.uk/understanding-the-counter-revolution/.

Daher, Joseph 2016, Hezbollah: The political economy of Lebanon’s party of god, Pluto Press.

Harman, Chris 1994, “The prophet and the proletariat”, International Socialism, 64, Autumn, http://www.marxists.de/religion/harman/.

Naguib, Sameh 2007, “Egypt’s strike wave”, International Socialism, 116, Autumn, http://isj.org.uk/interview-egypts-strike-wave/.

Notes

 

[1] Islamic warriors defending their country from the Soviet Union, which invaded in 1979.

[2] Harman 1994.

[3] See Bouharoun 2017 and Naguib 2007 for examples of references to the “reformist” Muslim Brotherhood. This can be traced partially to Chris Harman’s reference to the Brothers as having “adopted a ‘reformist Islamist’ orientation” in The prophet and the proletariat. While the latter formulation is useful in distinguishing the Brothers and similar organisations from the more extremist terrorist groups, the slide to describing them as “reformists” is profoundly mistaken and flies in the face of traditional Marxist understanding of reformist consciousness and organisations.

[4] Daher 2016, p88.

[5] ibid., p89.

[6] ibid., p170.

[7] ibid., p191.

[8] ibid., p171.

[9] Alabbasi 2015.